Political Science

Larry was in superb form, and we talked about mentoring, innovation in higher education, monopoly in the American economy, the optimal rate of capital income taxation, philanthropy, Hermann Melville, the benefits of labor unions, Mexico, Russia, and China, Fed undershooting on the inflation target, and Larry’s table tennis adventure in the summer Jewish Olympics. Here is the podcast, video, and transcript.

Here is one excerpt:

SUMMERS: Second, the VIX — people tend to underappreciate this. The volatility of the market moves very much with the level of the market. The reason is that if a company has $100 of debt and $100 of equity, and then the stock market goes up, it’s 50/50 levered.

If the stock market goes up by $100, then it has $100 of debt and $200 of equity and it’s only one-third levered. So when the stock market goes up, its volatility naturally goes down. And the stock market has gone way up over the last 10 months. That’s a factor operating to make its volatility go significantly down.

It’s also the case if you look at surprises. The magnitude of errors in the consensus estimates of company profits or the consensus estimates of industrial production or what have you, numbers have been coming in close to consensus to an unusual degree over the last few months.

I think all those things contribute to the relatively low level of the VIX, but those are more in the way of ex post explanations. If you had told me everything that was going on in the world and asked me to guess where the VIX would be, I would expect it to have been a little higher than it is right now.


COWEN: If there’s an ongoing demand shortfall, as is suggested by many secular stagnation approaches, does that mean monopoly cannot be a major economic problem because that’s from the supply side, and that the supply side constraint isn’t really binding if you think of there as being multiple Lagrangians. Forgive me for getting technical for a moment. Do you see what I’m saying?

SUMMERS: That wouldn’t have been the way I’d have thought about it, Tyler, but what you’re saying might be right. I think I’d be inclined to say that, if there’s more monopoly, there’s more money going to monopoly firms where there’s a low propensity to spend it, both because the firms don’t invest and because the owners of the firms tend to be rich or endowments that have a low propensity to spend.

So the greater monopoly power, to the extent that it exists, is one factor operating to raise savings and reduce investment which contributes to demand shortfalls and secular stagnation.

I also think that there’s likely to be less entry in competition in markets that aren’t growing rapidly than there is in markets that are growing rapidly. There’s a sense in which less demand over time creates its own lack of supply.


COWEN: What mental qualities make for a good table tennis player?

SUMMERS: Judging by my performance, qualities that I do not possess.


SUMMERS: I think a deft wrist, a certain capacity for concentration, and a great deal of practice. While I practiced intensely in the run-up to the activity, there were other participants who had been practicing intensely for decades. And that gave them a substantial advantage.


If you think you know someone who is very smart, Larry is almost certainly smarter.

This is from a job market paper at Stockholm University, by Sirus Dehdari:

This paper studies the effects of economic distress on support for far-right parties. Using Swedish election data, I show that shocks to unemployment risk among unskilled native-born workers account for 5 to 7 percent of the increased vote share for the Swedish far-right party Sweden Democrats. In areas with an influx of unskilled immigrants equal to a one standard deviation larger than the average influx, the effect of the unemployment risk shock to unskilled native-born workers is exacerbated by almost 140 percent. These findings are in line with theories suggesting that voters attribute their impaired economic status to immigration. Furthermore, I find no effects on voting for other anti-EU and anti-globalization parties, challenging the notion that economic distress increases anti-globalization sentiment. Using detailed survey data, I present suggestive evidence of how increased salience of political issues related to immigration channels economic distress into support for far-right parties, consistent with theories on political opportunity structure and salience of sociocultural political issues.

Here is Dehdari’s cv, all via Matt Yglesias.


Individuals experiencing extreme weather activity more likely to support climate adaptation policy.

Effect of extreme weather activity on opinion is modest and not consistent across specific adaptation policies.

Effect of extreme weather activity on opinion diminishes over time.

Here is the paper, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Vipin Narang says yes:

The strategy turns on Kim’s main calculation that the United States will say it’s not worth losing a major American city to get rid of him.

Of course he could not knock out a major American or allied target, but he could use them somewhere.  And the use would boost his, uh…credibility.  In fact Charles Murray is worried.

I think of the model this way.  If Kim is irrational, we have obvious reason to worry, and of course a first strike could not be ruled out.  Remember Pearl Harbor?  (Or is that “Remember Pearl Harbor!”)

Alternatively, say all involved parties are fully rational in the selfish sense.  Fully rational agents make purely forward-looking calculations.  So if Kim used a nuke to kill a sparrow in North Korea, we would not attack because fear of losing an American city would far outweigh desire to retaliate for the loss of the sparrow.

How about one sparrow in the DMZ?  In Japan?  In the Arctic?  In a Malaysian airport?  Or maybe one sparrow, three sled dogs, and thirty Inuit?

At what point do we give it a go, and risk a poorly aimed North Korean ICBM being shot off into the sky?

What if Kim uses “only” a biological or chemical weapon, designed for minimum but noticeable impact, on a nearby country?  You should think of Kim’s strategy space as a continuous variable, with some noise added of course.

Is the space of “boosts his credibility and domestic stature, but without too much upping the risk of massive American retaliation” really the empty set?

Maybe.  Maybe not.  I give it about one percent, which in expected value terms is still a real worry.

…we first propose a new instrument for exposure to media bias to complement estimates based on news channel availability: the channel positions of news channels in cable television lineups. The channel position is the ordinal position of news channels in the cable lineup. The assertion is thus that the Fox News Channel will be watched more when it is channel position 25 instead of channel position 65. We demonstrate that a one-standard-deviation decrease in Fox News’s channel position is associated with an increase of approximately 2.5 minutes per week in time spent watching Fox News. We estimate that watching the Fox News Channel for this additional 2.5 minutes per week increases the vote share of the Republican presidential candidate by 0.3 percentage points among voters induced into watching by variation in channel position. The corresponding effect of watching MSNBC for 2.5 additional minutes per week is an imprecise zero.

That is by Gregory J. Martin and Ali Yurukoglu, just published in the most recent AER.  Here are ungated copies.

The post is interesting throughout, here are the closing paragraphs:

The left is more okay with people forming distinct subgroups, even as it thinks more in terms of treating everyone equally, even across very wide scopes, and including wide scopes in more divisive debates. The right wants to make redistribution more conditional, more wants to punish free riders, and wants norm violators to be more consistently punished. The left tends to presume large scale cooperation is feasible, while right tends to presume competition more. The left hopes for big gains from change while the right worries about change damaging things that now work.

Views tend to drift leftward as nations and the world gets richer. Left versus right isn’t very useful for prediction individual behavior outside of politics, even as it is the main parameter that robustly determines large scale political ciliations. People tend to think differently about politics on what they see as the largest scales; for example, there are whole separate fields of political science and political philosophy, which don’t overlap much with fields dealing with smaller scale politics, such as in clubs and firms.

I shouldn’t need to say it but I will anyway: it is obvious that a safe playful talky collective isn’t always the best way to deal with things. Its value varies with context. So sometimes those who are more reluctant to invoke it are right to be wary, while at other times those who are eager to apply it are right to push for it. It is not obvious, at least to me, whether on average the instincts of the left or the right are more helpful.

Do read the whole thing.

And then, [James] Buchanan offers a brief comment on his views on education and school vouchers. Critically, he voices reservations about the introduction of vouchers. Why? Because, as he writes, he is concerned “somehow, to avoid the evils of race-class-cultural segregation that an unregulated voucher scheme might introduce.” Buchanan then goes on to express support for introducing competition in the provision of education, but notes that this should be done in a way that serves “at the same time, to secure the potential benefits of commonly shared experiences, including exposure to other races, classes, and cultures.” In short, though brief, Buchanan’s letter eloquently expresses a vision of education that champions the value of diversity, explicitly condemns “the evils of race-class-cultural segregation,” and notes his reservations about school vouchers if they threaten these values.

That is from Georg Vanberg, and this is fully consistent with the twenty or so years I had of frank conversations with the man.  Here is the letter itself (pdf).

I was having an email exchange about the possibility that dictatorships and autocracies do centralized monument-building much better than the freer democracies do.  But while this is probably true on average, some of the deviations are of interest.  Here is an excerpt from my response:

In some ways France looks like an autocracy, whereas in Singapore (not a dictatorship of course, but not a full democracy either) the government buildings are deliberately underwhelming (a kind of counter-signaling?).

Almaty and Skopje go overboard in the autocratic direction, the latter being a democracy.  Washington, D.C. does centralized monuments very well, better than anything modern China has come up with.  Cuban government buildings do not at all impress, nothing like Pyongyang.

Morocco invested in what was then the world’s largest mosque, in lieu of a government building upgrade.  Ivory Coast has done much more monument-building than the other African autocracies.

So I wonder what the deeper model looks like…

Here are a few options:

1. Insecure nation-states invest in monuments.  That is correlated with autocracy, but imperfectly.

2. Perhaps nation-states invest in monuments in lieu of concrete achievements for their citizenries.

3. Cuba has not built many monuments because its “origin story” is so strong, and its ideology for a long time has had a fair amount of support from the Cuban people.  Alternatively, Castro himself was the monument.

4. Is Singapore itself the monument to Singapore?  The same might be said of Dubai.  What artificial monuments could top those?

Advocates of Confederate monuments, by the way, ought to ponder the possibility that those very structures are a sign of weakness not strength.

Alex already has covered this topic.  I am less worried than he is, and I’ll go through a list, but first here are a few general remarks.

Most of the ban attempts seem directed at versions of alt right ideas.  Whether you like it or not, those ideas have benefited from the internet perhaps more than any other.  I am seeing a small amount of that gain clawed back, but in a manner consistent with principles of liberty and free association and probably Coasean efficiency as well.  The claim “the tech companies are way more open than the previous mainstream gatekeepers, but they have to spend more customer and employee goodwill to be all the more open yet” has some resonance with me, but I can’t say it is in the top 300 list of demands I wish to place on the world.  It might not be in the top 1000.

It remains the case that the most significant voluntary censorship issues occur every day in mainstream non-internet society, including what gets on TV, which books are promoted by major publishers, who can rent out the best physical venues, and what gets taught at Harvard or for that matter in high school.  In all of these areas, universal intellectual service was never a relevant ideal to begin with, and so it seems odd to me to pick on say Facebook.  It’s still not nearly as important an influence as the above-mentioned parts of non-internet society, nor is it anywhere close to being as discriminatory.

That all said, I am happy when I see people complain about voluntary censorship, even when I disagree with the complaints, or think the complainer is being too pessimistic.  Complaining > complacency.  That said, here is my wee dose of complacency, in the form of a list across various parts of the internet:

1. On-line dating services.  No fears here.  Christian, Jewish, and other dating services are already set up to include some groups and exclude others.  If OK Cupid excludes neo-Nazis, or supposed neo-Nazis, this seems entirely in order.

2. Amazon.  You can order Mein Kampf on Amazon, and few seem to complain about that.  Does it make sense to have a world where Hitler is available but Milo is banned?  Well, a lot doesn’t make sense these days, but still I don’t ever expect that to happen.  There are cultural and also business reasons why universal booksellers will be among the last to embrace voluntary censorship.

Can you order a swastika, of the evil kind, on Amazon?  It seems not.  Presumably that has been the case for a while, it doesn’t bug me, and I wouldn’t mind if Amazon selectively stopped carrying other political symbols as well.  I bet Wal-Mart doesn’t carry them either.

3. Facebook.  Here my worry quotient at least potentially rises, if only because Americans spend so much time on Facebook.  Let’s say Facebook bans some neo-Nazi groups and communications, and then goes too far and keeps off some groups that offer valuable intellectual contributions, even if their quality might be too “high variance.”

Yet here’s the thing: given my mixed feelings toward Facebook, I see this as OK either way.  If Facebook gets better, well, how bad can “better” be?  But say the Facebook censors overreact, some groups are booted off, and Facebook gets worse.  I don’t mind if Facebook gets worse!  People will spend more time doing other things.  And the unjustly banned group still have plenty of other outlets on the web.  We know from history that every medium encourages some kinds of ideas and discourages others (TV for instance seems to let people think crime rates are pretty high, because crimes get covered on the evening news).  Not long ago, there was no Facebook and those unjustly banned groups couldn’t get on the evening news either.  Maybe that was bad, but it was hardly the end of the world, and even with an overly aggressive Facebook censor we are still far closer to a kind of neutrality across ideas than was the case twenty years ago.

4. Google.  In China I found it very easy to switch to Bing, because Bing is a second or so quicker in China (that is using Google through VPN, otherwise you can’t).  Now maybe Bing bans the same web sites.  And maybe the lower-tier search engines are too crummy, or people are simply not used to using them.

On this issue I have modest fears.  Still, what I’ve seen so far is a Google (and Bing) that want to be as universal as possible, and the constraints as coming from the regulators, such as the EU “forgetting” policy.  Google covers so much material, I think of them as not wanting to devote many resources to adjudicating content.  At the very least, they still seem quite willing to take me to Amazon selling Mein Kampf.

I do expect news.google.com to become more mainstream over time, and indeed it already has.  They are more careful about what pops up on the page.  This too doesn’t bug me, it probably improves average quality, and furthermore it is still a more open forum than is the news on television.

Here you can read a long list of complaints against Google and affiliated services.  Given how much data the company handles, and how many cases arise, I’m amazed they’ve done so well.  Salil Mehta was just restored, by the way.

5. Twitter.  For many people it might be an advantage to be banned from Twitter.  Still, for some views Twitter is an important means of connecting with the audience, Donald Trump being the most prominent example.  So I have a bit of a worry, but I don’t see Twitter as that powerful in the world of ideas.  And overall I have a pretty fluid view of what is likely to matter.  I do not think it is impossible or even implausible that some really important ideas, twenty years from now, are circulated using fanzines, or perhaps something like the old usenet groups.  More generally, our ability as outsiders to judge the health and quality of an intellectual ecosystem just isn’t that great, so maybe we shouldn’t be so judgmental at each step along the way?

6. YouTube (owned by Google).  Due to copyright law, YouTube is already in the business of making plenty of judgments about content and it has the infrastructure to do so.  And unlike Google the search engine, content is posted directly on YouTube itself.  YouTube is a hosting service, not just a search engine, though it is that too.  YouTube search and recommendation algorithms drive a lot of views.  If YouTube won’t host your videos, that is a problem.

But I am not very worried about “YouTube as we know it.”  The forum seems to work quite well (no need to mention Jordan Peterson in the comments, his account was restored).  I am happy that gangs can’t post videos of their killings, and the biggest problem remains government censorship of YouTube.  If you google “banned from YouTube,” I do not see a long list of outrages, that said I would not have banned the Prager University videos.  Whether you like it or not, it is easy to watch Milo on YouTube, even though the publishing world dropped his book like a stone.  The tech companies still seem so much more open than the older media gatekeepers.

Cloudflare, and other internet choke point services: I worry about them a lot.  They can in essence kick you off the entire internet through a single human decision not to offer the right services.  I focus almost all of my worry on them, noting that so far all they have done is kick off one Nazi group.  Still, I think we should reexamine the overall architecture of the internet with this kind of censorship power in mind as a potential problem.  And note this: the main problem with those choke points probably has more to do with national security and the ease of wrecking social coordination, not censorship.  Still, this whole issue should receive much more attention and I certainly would consider serious changes to the status quo.

A bit more

I hope the tech companies do not go further with voluntary censorship, but I don’t think it is obvious that they will.  It seems they felt the need to do something, and now they are hoping the storm will pass.  I do favor vigilance against further overreach, but let’s not overrate the importance of what are so far largely symbolic disputes.

By the way, what’s the deal with the Left favoring net neutrality but wanting all this voluntary internet censorship?

Veterans’ issues — something that almost never make the national conversation unless the Veteran’s Administration has a juicy scandal for us to gape at — loomed much larger in the questioning than health-care reform, which has obsessed the national media for the past nine months. That shouldn’t really be surprising. The number of veterans in the country is roughly equal to the widely touted figure of 20 million people who gained insurance because of Obamacare.


Veterans’ issues were the most notable way that the local conversation differed from the national one, but far from the only one. I heard more about school policy than climate change, and a great deal about very local issues indeed — problems with asbestos in the water table, a local community college that someone said was doing a poor job of preparing kids for work. In the El Paso leg of the trip, which I didn’t cover, Hurd says that the conversation was dominated by flooding, as heavy rains had recently filled normally dry arroyos, damaging property and displacing families.

That is from Megan McArdle, who is touring the politics of Texas, national level politics I might add, a House race.

These aspects raise an uncomfortable possibility for libertarians: is there a sort of law of conservation of coercion in well-functioning societies? A community with a minimal state can only function if it is thick enough and homogeneous enough to enforce sanctions for antisocial behavior that are almost state-like in their severity, and, furthermore, can make them stick. Freeing individuals from their smothering parochialisms will lead to a compensating increase in the scope and reach of the state as people search for a new solution to social dilemmas formerly handled via informal means. Conversely, attempts to suddenly curtail state power may lead to chaos in the intervening period when social institutions have not yet reasserted themselves. Principled libertarians might still have good reasons to prefer the non-state forms of compulsion—among them the arguments from public choice economics and a federalist preference for decisions being made at the lowest feasible level, where actors are most likely to have relevant information. But “increased freedom” may not be one of them.

Here is more:

Kuznicki thinks the engineering mindset in political theory is an antidote to what he sees as a philosophical tradition of abstract theorizing that puts the state on a pedestal and makes it into an almost metaphysical nexus of the human condition. But as I look around, much of the vapid theorizing seems to be in favor of liberalism writ large, while the best current example of a state built on hard-nosed pragmatism is Singapore. Kuznicki himself is a representative of a currently fashionable sort of cosmopolitan libertarianism that has never existed in governmental form, and which I suspect is the least likely form of government ever to exist. What if a practical politics that took account of human frailty implied a world formed from a combination of cosmopolitan but illiberal city-states, unified but homogeneous nation-states, and sprawling empires that vacillate between centrifugal and centripetal tendencies? In fact, this is the world that has existed for most of recorded history. Perhaps the real ideological blinders are those which tell us that we have transcended this condition and can replace it with something else.

That is from William Wilson in American Affairs, hat tip goes to Garett Jones and Rogue WPA Staff.  Here is Jason Kuznicki’s new book, which I have not yet seen.

*The Dawn of Eurasia*

by on August 21, 2017 at 5:34 pm in Books, History, Political Science | Permalink

By Bruno Maçães, due out in January.  I was asked to blurb it, I’m going to go “off the reservation” and call it so far the best and most important book I’ve read so far this year.  From Amazon:

In this original and timely book, Bruno Maçães argues that the best word for the emerging global order is ‘Eurasian’, and shows why we need to begin thinking on a super-continental scale. While China and Russia have been quicker to recognise the increasing strategic significance of Eurasia, even Europeans are realizing that their political project is intimately linked to the rest of the supercontinent – and as Maçães shows, they will be stronger for it.

The Kindle edition at least you can pre-order.

Let’s start with the distiction between people and their ideas and also their behavior.  We might condemn the ideas of a person without condeming the person himself.  Of course, if the ideas are very, very bad, sometimes we condemn the person too.

We seem to mind less when the bad ideas come from another time and space altogether.  For instance, hardly anyone seems to mind if a Mexican migrant has incorrect and deeply offensive views on the Oapan-Sam Miguel land disputes.  Those beliefs, even if they sanction violence against innocents for the purposes of land grabs, don’t impinge much on current American status competitions.  Similary, I don’t see that many objections to intellectual “monuments” erected in favor of classical Athens, in spite of the significant role of slavery in that society.  The pro-Athenian faction isn’t going to command any electoral votes the next cycle.  Was Joan of Arc problematic?

How many people object if a high percentage of the best jobs for Indian-Americans go to members of higher castes?  Does anyone push for affirmative action within the Indian-American community?  Not that I am aware of.  Those status contests aren’t salient for most of us.

I see many people who have behaved very badly — and here I mean legally convicted criminals — but where the prevailing “mood affiliation” among American liberal intellectuals is to favor their rehabilitation.  For instance, if a company does not ask job applicants if they have criminal records, this is considered to be good, and maybe it is.  For one thing, many of those criminals are the products of bad circumstances and we may have various (true) theories that help to excuse their behavior.  So we don’t go to the nth degree to shame and disgrace those ex-criminals, even if they have been convicted of prior violent activities.

How are we then to feel about contemporary neo-Nazis?  Most of them have not been convicted of anything at all.  Yet right now we are going to great lengths to shame and disgrace them.  We regard them as on a lower moral rung than the convicted criminals.  But is wishing for violence that much worse than having committed it yourself?

Or sometimes those two qualities go together.  If you are a neo-Nazi and you have committed a violent act, like the guy who drove that car into the crowd, it seems OK to put your photo on the internet in any kind of stereotypically despised, lookist, “white filth” portrayal that is possible, with maximum scorn and contempt.  Should we cover a prisoner on Death Row the same way?  What about someone who has been judged mentally ill?  What if in the meantime we simply do not know?

There may be a good utilitarian reason for the distinctions we draw, namely that we wish to discourage neo-Nazi behavior, and the behavior of potential copycats, for future-oriented reasons.   (Is that shaming even the most effective way to do so?  We don’t seem to obsess over shame threats for convicted criminals, to keep them — and others — on “the right track.”).  Perhaps shaming and disgracing them is necessary because they hold very bad ideologies, and perhaps potentially contagious ideologies, ideologies that most violent criminals do not seem to promulgate.

Maybe this utilitarian view is correct, namely that the shaming of an individual should depend on social context and political impact, and not just on the prior behavior of that individual.  But then notice what we are doing, we are moving away from moral individualism ourselves, and treating the shamed person as a means in the Kantian sense.  I even feel that such shaming makes me a slight bit like them, in a way I wish to avoid.

Do I have the option of just feeling sorry for the neo-Nazis, and at the same time dreading their possible social impact, in the way one might dread and hate a tornado?  But not shaming or scolding them?

Or should I feel bad about benefiting from the shaming activities of others, and being a kind of free-riding Kantian moral purist?

What if deterrence is not your actual goal with the shaming, but rather you are shaming for the purposes of motivating your own “troops”?

Another group being shamed over the course of the last week has been the misogynistic EJMR posters.  But I am curious as to the implicit theories held by the shamers here.  Why do those men write such nasty things?  Is it all just bad socialization, or might some of them them have a genetic inclination toward such behavior?  But once we consider the latter, we seem dangerously into the kind of stereotyping we were objecting to just a moment ago, when we sought to shame them.

What if sexual bullying lies deep in male DNA?  Not for everyone of course, but for some people.  And those same people may well have grown up in disadvantageous circumstances, surrounded by the wrong kinds of nerds, and then they ended up sad and broken on EJMR, for lack of having had the right role models.

Overall I am not impressed by how most of you are writing and thinking about these issues.  I wish to shame you a bit.  Everyone wishes to shame someone.  For me it’s you — sorry!

The gap between the unemployment rates in north and south, for instance, will soon be wider than that between east and west (see chart 2). In the New Social Market Economy Initiative’s education rankings, Saxony and Thuringia took the two highest places among Germany’s 16 states while Berlin and Brandenburg, also eastern states, took the two lowest. The north-south divide on life expectancy is now greater than the east-west one; women in Baden-Württemberg and Saxony live the longest. According to André Wolf of the Hamburg Global Economics Institute, “in the medium term the north-south differential could definitely supersede the (current) east-west one.”

In 1960, however, Bavaria was the poorest part of West Germany.

That is from The Economist.